The rusted 50-year-old Aquarama makes its way down the Detroit River through Amherstburg, en route to Buffalo, N.Y. The ship, renowned for its history of mishaps, was taken out of dock Tuesday morning.
A few tugs from a few tugs, and the colossal Aquarama slipped from the muck of its mooring Tuesday, bound for Buffalo and hopefully a future more promising than its notorious past.
For six years this 160-metre, seven-storey former Second World War troop ship has been mired in a rented west-end slip barely large enough to hold it.
Passersby gawked at the derelict, rusting monster, wondering how glorious its past had been, how majestic it may once have looked, and why the heck it was here.
"There she goes," observed part-owner James Everatt, as two tugboats gently guided the Aquarama--currently going by its original name, the Marine Star--down the Detroit River at the start of a 30-hour journey.
It's going to another slip in Buffalo, N.Y. and then to a shipyard where it will undergo a $30-million-to-$50-million refit to make it a huge casino ship.
Everatt said that with 250,000 square feet of floor space, the ship--pure white, looking like a sleek, new cruise ship--will be the largest casino ship in North America.
It will employ 1,400 people and generate a gross income of between $150 million and $330 million annually, said Everatt, who refused to disclose its ultimate destination.
That would be something new for this ocean-going orphan. It was a Liberty ship, built in 1945 in Chester, Pa., as a U.S. troop carrier, but it made just one trip across the Atlantic before the war ended.
It was designed for 35-to-40 year service, but during its five decades it has actually been in service for around five years. A Detroit industrialist eventually bought it and spent $8 million converting the USS Marine Star into a cruise-ferry ship that took passengers between Detroit and Cleveland in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The new Aquarama had nine decks containing four restaurants, four bars, movie theatres, recreation areas and room for 160 cars and 2,600 passengers. But it was remembered as much for its mishaps as for its Great Lakes grandeur.
Newspaper stories nicknamed it the Crusherama and described it as the most ill-tempered ship on the lakes after it rammed the sea wall of what is now Windsor's Dieppe Gardens. It also crashed into the Detroit News dock on the Detroit side and bumped into a U.S. Navy cruiser near Cleveland. And in 1957, its gigantic wake was blamed for nearly drowning a two-year-old girl at an Amherstburg beach and swamping two small fishing boats.
"One time, I remember when I was a kid, it came down the Amherstburg side (of the river), it bounced boats around, tore docks out," remembered Wes Ball, an Amherstburg marine enthusiast who drove to Windsor to watch the departure of the fabled ship Tuesday morning.
Former Windsor harbor master Rod Beaton was delighted to hear the Aquarama will no longer grace Windsor's riverfront. "It looked like hell, and right now it's the ugliest pile of junk," Beaton said.
The problem was the ship was designed to carry cargo on the open seas. When it's not loaded down, it sits high in the water and become prey to winds and the currents in the Detroit River. With just one rear prop (the prop shaft is pure steel, 60 feet long and two feet in diameter), it couldn't manoeuvre in close, Great Lakes quarters. The thin, tall ship was designed for the open seas, but Beaton quipped: It should already have been recycled through three Toyotas now."
Sold to a scrap dealer, all the old steel and aluminum would be worth over $1 million, but Everatt is confident there's lots of life left in the Aquarama.
Everatt is a St. Thomas businessman who got together with 22 other investors from his area to purchase the Aquarama--mothballed since 1963--for a rumored $3 million in 1987. The original plan was to convert it into a casino for Detroit's riverfront, but citizen referendums in the late 1980s killed their dreams. They next proposed sprucing it up to make it the centerpiece of a waterfront revitalization in Port Stanley, but that scheme also imploded due to government red tape, according to Everatt.
"It was not a great experience, it was very frustrating," he said. "I thought that, as a Canadian. it would be fantastic if it remained in Canada, but the opportunities are not here for us."
The ship bounced around for a few years, before a storage spot was found in Windsor. For six years, Everatt and his group forked out over $400,000 to rent the slip and pay for securities and utilities. The ship was recently purchased by a Delaware-based cruise company, which Everatt owns shares in. When it's refitted, it will get bow and stern thrusters that will enable it to better manoeuvre.
Converting it to a casino and moving it to its new home will take two years, Everatt estimated. "We need to get on with what we're doing."
Preparations to move the ship began four days ago. There was insurance to secure, and inspections to make sure it was seaworthy. A backhoe arrived to dig out the anchor that had been buried 15 feet into the ground by the ship's bow.
Spectators from the neighborhood stopped and peered through the fencing as the Aquarama was tugged out into the river. Although most of the ship's insides were gutted by Everatt's group, there were still many remnants from its heyday as a cruise-ferry ship.
Mark Rose, who was contracted to guard the Aquarama during the last three years, said he used to spend hours exploring the bowels of the old ship. Each time, he would make a new discovery--the four-storey-high engine room, portholes, rooms and hallways. There were 30-year-old dishes emblazoned with the latter A, napkins, placemats, cups, kitchen utensils, pop and cigarette machines, and a working baby grand piano.
While in Windsor, the pale-green and rust ship became a target for thieves and vandals. Most of the glass windows were smashed out. Some intruders only wanted to get in and scrawl their names on the bedraggled ship.
Considering its disappointing history, having only actually sailed for one-tenth of its life, Rose is hopeful that Everatt's lofty plans for the Aquarama come true. As his former charge moved slowly away Tuesday, the now-unemployed security guard said: "I really hope it sails again."
(1) The Tug shown towing the Aquarama is the Malcolm. She is 143 feet long and has a 2000hp engine. Info from Neil Schultheiss. [return]
(2) In English units, that is 525 feet long. As for height, 7-storey may be about 70 feet, but perhaps more. [return]
(3) Presumeably, these are Canadian dollar figures, hence somewhat less in American money, or $22-million to $37-million U.S. at the rate of exchange when the article was written. [return]
The AQUARAMA is apparently still berthed in Buffalo. Robert Martel has some photographs of her on the William G. Mather website. You can see how the vessel looked when originally built for military service in World War II as a United States Maritime Commision C4 Type Ship, one of only five built like her.
Copyright © 1996 by James W. Hebert. All rights reserved!
Last modified: October 1, 1998
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